Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review: Skin Game by Jim Butcher

Skin Game by Jim Butcher
Published: Roc, 2014
Series: Book 15 of the Dresden Files
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award

The Book:

Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, is about to have a very bad day… Because as Winter Knight to the Queen of Air and Darkness, Harry never knows what the scheming Mab might want him to do. Usually, it’s something awful. He doesn’t know the half of it… Mab has just traded Harry’s skills to pay off one of her debts. And now he must help a group of supernatural villains--led by one of Harry’s most dreaded and despised enemies, Nicodemus Archleone--to break into the highest-security vault in town, so that they can then access the highest-security vault in the Nevernever.

It's a smash and grab job to recover the literal Holy Grail from the vaults of the greatest treasure hoard in the supernatural world--which belongs to the one and only Hades, Lord of the freaking Underworld and generally unpleasant character. Worse, Dresden suspects that there is another game afoot that no one is talking about. And he's dead certain that Nicodemus has no intention of allowing any of his crew to survive the experience. Especially Harry. Dresden's always been tricky, but he's going to have to up his backstabbing game to survive this mess-assuming his own allies don’t end up killing him before his enemies get the chance…”

This is the first of the Dresden Files I’ve read, mostly just because I don't have a strong interest towards detective stories (which is how I had always classified this series in my mind). I picked this one up because it was nominated for the Hugo Award. I’m probably not going to go back and read the whole series, but this one was pretty fun.

My Thoughts:

Given that it’s the 15th book in a series, I think it’s pretty impressive that Skin Game was such an easily accessible book for new readers (e.g., me).  It was pretty clear that there was a lot of worldbuilding and character background I was missing out on, but it didn’t get in the way of understanding the story.  The relevant aspects of the supernatural world and the many characters were clearly (re-)introduced as they were needed.  I sometimes felt that it went slightly overboard, reiterating particular pieces of information often enough that it began to feel a little repetitive, even for a newcomer.  I think this was probably a departure from the usual pattern of the series, with Dresden stuck in a team with the villains, so it might have been more shocking for a long-time reader.  Altogether, while my response to the novel was certainly affected by not having read the rest of the series, the novel still worked as a whole and told a complete story.

Skin Game has a very casual, conversational style, full of jokes and pop culture references.  I mostly enjoyed the humor, even though some of the references went past me.  I also thought the heist was pretty entertaining, both in the villain team’s interactions and the strategic use of each members’ magical capabilities.  There were some pretty fun plot twists, which made the reader re-evaluate the assumptions they were not aware that they had made earlier in the narrative.  One thing that did bother me a bit, though, involved the female characters.  I didn’t really mind Dresden’s constantly referencing their physical attractiveness, since I’ve heard that’s just one of his things.  What bothered me was that many of the female characters seemed to fall into a pattern of failing at a particular thing while their male counterpart succeeded--a failure/success that was generally linked to their relative integrity or value.  It could well have been a coincidence, but it was enough to slightly jolt me out of enjoying the adventure each time the pattern repeated.

The story moved along pretty briskly, and there was plenty of action of the magical variety to keep things exciting.  The preparation and the heist itself involved some interesting magical challenges, and, as Harry anticipates, the team contains a number of dangerous shifting loyalties.  In an action-based story like this, I’d expect to see a lot of collateral damage in terms of property and human lives.  I really respected that this was one area where Harry would not compromise his principles. Throughout, he remained determined to protect bystanders at all costs, and it bothered him on the few occasions when he failed in this goal.  He definitely has his flaws, but I liked that Harry continues to try to be a good person, despite Mab’s influence. It seems like Harry Dresden is still poised to have more adventures, whether he wants to or not!

My Rating: 3.5/5

Skin Game was an exciting heist novel with a casual style of narration, many characters, plot twists, and a pleasant amount of humor.  Despite being the fifteenth novel in a series, it was pretty easy to follow with very little prior knowledge of the world and characters.  In fact, I sometimes felt like Harry reiterated information a little too often as the story progressed. I’m sure a lot of the story would have a deeper resonance with someone who has been following the series, and who is emotionally invested in the journeys of recurring characters. Overall, I had fun reading this book, but I doubt I’ll go back to read the rest of the series.

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